Throwback Thursday: Make a Sun Print

Explore the earliest pre-photography techniques in this craft from home activity 

An image of Gloria Kenyon.
Gloria Kenyon
Public Programs Coordinator
August 19, 2021
Media - 1994.91.91 - SAAM-1994.91.91_1 - 82872
Bertha E. Jaques, Elderberry Blossoms, 1910, cyanotype photogram, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the Charles Isaacs Collection made possible in part by the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1994.91.91
Bertha E. Jaques, Elderberry Blossoms, 1910, cyanotype photogram, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the Charles Isaacs Collection made possible in part by the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1994.91.91

We have had photography on our minds this summer at SAAM. First, we opened Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980, a photography survey that captures a changing American neighborhood through the eyes of three women photographers. Most recently, we announced that SAAM has acquired a rare collection of early daguerreotypes from three African American photographers. So, for this Throwback Thursday, we invite you to soak up the last of the summer sun with a photography-inspired craft from our very own craft master.

Did you know that you can recreate your own version of a photography predecessor with just construction paper and sunlight? You can with a sun print! This simple paper-fading project is related in process to cyanotypes, like Elderberry Blossoms by Bertha E. Jaques. We’ll use construction paper; cyanotypes use an iron-based solution on paper or fabric that reacts to light and causes an untreated area of the paper to turn blue—like you see in a blueprint or in the artwork above. This early process led to the development of more stable photographic processes that gave us photographs as we know them today.

To make a sun print, you’ll need the following supplies:

  • Scissors
  • Heavy scrap paper (cardboard, magazine, paper board)
  • Construction paper
  • Plastic wrap
  • Rocks or bricks
  • Sunlight
A photo of shapes cut out on a piece of paper with rocks holding it down.

Letting the sun do its work. Photos by Gloria Kenyon.

Plan your design and cut it out from the scrap paper.

Lay the cut outs on top of the construction paper; do not tape or glue.

Wrap the entire paper in plastic wrap.

Lay the paper in the sun; pick a place that will stay sunny for at least 6+ hours. If good weather is expected for multiple days, you can leave it for longer.

Set bricks or stones at the edges to hold everything in place. (This is not a great project for a windy day.)

Come back after 6-plus hours and remove the plastic wrap and cut outs. Admire your new print!

A sunprint artwork

Suitable for framing. Your sun print is ready.

Share your sun prints with us @americanart We'll be publishing another at-home craft with the craft master soon. In the meantime, check out our video library of crafting projects from past Handi-hour events.

Learn more about SAAM's rich holdings in photography, including cyanotypes.  

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